Recently, I had the chance to speak with the Lead Developer of Ground Branch, John Sonedecker. Ground Branch is an upcoming First Person Shooter, with a heavy emphasis on squad-based tactics. They have a Kickstarter page to fund the project, and though they have received a lot of pledges thus far, are only at about ten percent of their overall goal.
That goal is one of the first things we talked about. John is an experienced industry veteran, with numerous titles, such as the original Rainbow Six, under his belt. With over 15 titles he has had a hand in, plus numerous projects in the area of simulation and modeling for the United States Department of Defense, John knows what it takes to finance a game. The current goal of $425,000 was arrived at after paring down the game to what are really the essentials.
“I knew it was important to be honest with the request,” John said “We’ve worked hard to get a budget we know we could work with.” You see, for that nearly half a million dollars, John intends to build a complete game, from start to finish. Much of the groundwork is already done, and we have seen some early alpha video of the game as it is now. So, more than just an idea or concept is in the works here, we are talking everything. The lowest tier one can pledge to and still get one of the rewards is $15.00 USD. For that, the backer will received digital copy of the game, and at 15 bucks, you can hardly go wrong on any title. As donation amounts increase, so do the rewards. You can go all out for a $10,000 donation, and in addition to John probably wanting to kiss you (or at least bat his eyes in thanks), you get a list of rewards that is impressive. This reward tier includes a personalized tour of Fort Bragg, with John and a few members of the Special Operations Community, and you get a little trigger time.
The rewards themselves were another point John made. Hats, T-shirts and collectibles are nice, but cost money. Giving away a T-shirt at a 15 dollar pledge level would realistically cost nearly as much as was donated. That is why you don’t start seeing material items until the $125 mark. John describes himself as a man of principle, with high morals he lives by. True, many say this, but he took it a step further.
I asked the inevitable question, the one that is sure to bring dread to anyone hoping to fund a project through crowdsourcing. What will you do if you don’t reach the goal? I expected John to turn either white or red; he seemed rather composed, but I could tell that the question was a definite concern. He told me there were other plans and possibilities in place to keep the project moving. I later found out that he even has plans for future titles, outside the Shooter genre. “I’ve always got two or three plans in place, to back up my current ones,” he later said.
Blackfoot Studios has worked on Ground Branch in one form or fashion for years. With the team ranging from as few as John by himself, to as many as five, they currently sit at three, with some working for no pay. Ground Branch has been one of those projects the team works on after put food on the table. Now is the time to take that to the next level.
I wanted to get to know a little bit about John himself, to find out what sort of games he likes, since it makes sense that we would see those qualities in his work.
John has a core group of gamers, some reaching back from his time assisting Joint Special Operations Command and its various personnel with modeling and simulations. He tells me he mostly plays First Person and Third Person shooters, but he is more into specific game types on both console and PC.
“There has to be a reason to do things, other than to earn unlocks or a kill streak. I like games where the reward is the experience of playing the game itself, the journey is important. Many games today are using the gameplay as a means to an end. I don’t like games that make you play to get something outside the game.”
Specifically, John likes games that make you think, where you have to act as part of a team, and the things your team do make sense. Though reality is what he bases his gameplay on, and his game design, he does not want to be totally constrained by it.
John went on to explain that yes, the game will show impacts and blood spatter, but the sort of graphic, grotesque images associated with war will not be included. He made a good point, stating he had a young daughter, “If I can’t work on it front of her, then I don’t need to work on it. Through his contracting work with the U.S. Government, John said, “I’ve seen those results personally, and they do not need to be in a game.” The point is he wants you to have fun, not flashbacks.
While Ground Branch will have its roots grounded in reality, it will not be a brutal tactical simulator. The Blackfoot team wants you to have fun, to take what they promise to deliver, and run with it. The game will focus on the CIA Special Activities Staff or Paramilitary Officers, as they are more commonly known. CIA SAS pulls members from existing military special operations communities, and turns their skills to use in covert operations around the world.
The Single Player campaign will focus on the Island nation of Sumatra, which is geographically close to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Thailand, among other nations. What event or events could possibly lead to a CIA covert operation in the area may seem far-fetched, but consider the fact that commercial quantities of crude oil exist in the area, and then take another look at the map. While John did not tell me who the Opposing Force or Forces would be, he did say the whole story deals with political and operational deniability. Your opponents will likely be peers from one of the larger geographically nearby nations.
Ground Branch is not going to draw you in with Hollywood like action. The game is brutal, as close to realistic as the developers can make it without becoming overly cumbersome. If you take a lethal wound, you are done, no regeneration, but First Aid can allow you to recover from less lethal wounds at a reduced effectiveness. The environment will feature material penetration and some destruction. While you will not be able to bring down an entire building, you can destroy, and may have to destroy, certain portions of it to gain entry or eliminate a target.
Other details he shared with me included a realistic grenade process, meaning your character will go through the motions of grabbing the grenade, pulling the pin and throwing it. Similarly, night vision goggles will feature a realistic turn on feature, and there will be a period of eye adjustment. Vehicles will be used for insertion and extraction, but are not planned to be usable by players at this time. Doors will be able to be opened at variable speeds, from a kick (or more than one) to dynamic breaching. This and a few other items show me the team is paying attention to details.
Ok, so you want the destruction, you want the vehicles. Full mod tools will be present, and the framework is already there. Like I said, Blackfoot is handing us Ground Branch, and telling us to run with the ball. These community features include user made arm patches, dedicated servers and clan/unit support.
Certainly, some of these features will frustrate more casual and run and gun gamers, who want the immediate satisfaction of a quick kill and points boost. But when it comes down to it, that is the whole point, to play a game where you do more than compete on the Leaderboards.
When you look at it, John and his merry band of Shooters and Looters are making the game we all wish we had. Reaching back to games not that long ago, that gave their fans the tools to carry the title beyond the year it is released. Post launch support and continuing development, a recipe for community loyalty. Blackfoot Studios is not the only developer pursuing this model; many are coming to realize there is a need and a market for it. These indie studios will bring us the best titles in the near future.
During our entire conversation, one thing that John kept coming back to was his previous and current work on behalf of the Department of Defense. I knew from a little research he did not serve in the military, something he was quick to confirm, but with some visible regret. Like many, John wishes he did take the opportunity to join the military, and dedicates himself to serving our Nation and its Armed Forces through the means available to him.
Besides his work in the gaming industry, John’s hand can be seen in several aspects of our modern Special Operations training doctrine, and even some of the operations. Working with a team of others, he has helped modernize the training environment, bringing the military, clawing and screaming, into the 21st Century. Power point presentations and sand table exercises are being replaced with interactive multimedia software suites, that are not unlike a game, and promise to engage a generation of warriors that are used to the visual and audio stimulation of today’s society. With this new software, old equipment is either updated, or exchanged, and our warriors in the field are seeing the results.
For a man who has never served a day in uniform, John has probably saved many lives as a direct result of his work. His dedication is apparent, but not a badge he wears. Even the studio’s support for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation is something you could almost miss. It’s found on the “About” section, near the bottom. John tells me that he wishes to contribute to the Foundation, but not make it a part of marketing. Future collaboration will be happening as we see with other games, but like those other games, the terms are up to the Foundation to decide.
There was a bit more to this interview, names were mentioned, and we found out we had some common acquaintances and interests. When it was all said and done, I left with a good feeling about John, BlackFoot Studios and Ground Branch, and was hopeful that the goal is reached, and glad that like any tactical thinker, there is always a backup plan.